Clouds bar star buffs from view of nebulae

Monday, March 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:15 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

A crescent moon and patchy clouds teased Steve Gallaway on Saturday night.

“I’ve been watching the moon appear and disappear,” said Gallaway, an amateur astronomer and a member of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association. “It’s like the Cheshire Cat smile — it’s there, and then it’s gone.”

Gallaway and nine other association members gathered at Wildhaven in Brown Station for the organization’s annual Messier Marathon. Thick clouds cut short this year’s event, which was scheduled to last from dusk on Saturday until dawn Sunday.

Messier Marathons are all-night, unofficial challenges to view 110 Messier objects, named for 16th century French astronomer Charles Messier, who discovered and recorded them. Messier objects are nebulae, clusters of stars surrounded by luminous patches of dust and gas.

“It’s the perfect time of year to see the Messier objects because of the way they are set in the sky,” said Randy Durk, treasurer and vice president of special events and media for the association. “You can see them all in one night.”

The clouds on Saturday, however, prevented the marathoners from catching many of the objects. At 6:30 p.m., when the sky was between clear and cloudy, the group already missed viewing four nebulae.

“It depends on how many stories people have,” Durk said of how long he’d wait for the sky to clear, referring to the stories association members told.

The observatory site at Wildhaven has two shacks for stationary telescopes. Behind the shacks is an open field where members usually set up telescopes and binoculars on tripods. Gallaway was the first member to set up his unit. The others waited for clearer skies, trying not to fall prey to “sucker holes.”

“Sucker holes — that’s an official nerd term,” Durk said. “You think it looks like a clear patch, and you get your scope all set up, and then the clouds come in.”

Val Germann, association president, experienced sucker-hole-like luck before using his first decent telescope.

“I bought my first really good scope in 1980, and four days later Mount St. Helens went off,” he said. “We couldn’t see a thing.”

Many amateur astronomers’ interests are triggered by a precipitating event, Germann said. Marathoner Doug Kniffen, however, said he thought amateur astronomers have an inherent personality trait.

“You have to want to look out beyond yourself, beyond the end of your nose. It’s someone who wants to see farther, who wants to understand more,” he said. Association members agreed that after people get into astronomy, interest and investment grows. Germann, who owns five pairs of binoculars and five telescopes, created a theory about a friend’s telescope-buying habits.

“Sheldon’s Law,” named for Germann’s friend, plots telescope purchasing on a bell curve over time.

“When you start out, you get a two-inch scope (lens aperture), and you move up from there,” Germann said. “Around age 40 or 50, you buy your biggest scope, and it’s all downhill from there. By the time you’re done, you have a two-inch scope again.”

Patches of sky cleared, and two more marathoners set up equipment. By 10 p.m., however, the cloudy skies and cold weather got the best of the marathoners.

“I could be watching a Steven Seagal movie on TNT right now,” Durk said.

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